Monday, March 19, 2012

The use and abuse of surveys in industrial disputes

I am struck by the contrasting use of surveys in different parts of the current dispute over public service pensions.

Unions rightly considering further strike action against unacceptable offers (such as UCU - http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=418992) have used surveys and consultative ballots (which are really just fairly rigorous surveys) to test (and build) support for further action. In the case of UCU (and other unions) this survey of members' opinions was initiated by a unanimous decision of the lay Executive.

UNITE - who aren't contemplating further action - are using a range of means whereby their members can vote in a consultative ballot (or survey) on the Government's derisory offer on NHS pensions (http://www.unitetheunion.org/resources/pensions/protecting_pensions_for_our_pu/health_sector_consultative_bal.aspx). UNITE's survey of its members opinions - and the clear recommendation to reject the offer - was agreed by its lay National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC).

In UNISON on the other hand, our local government branches received, out of the blue and with no authority of any lay Committee, the following message on behalf of the Head of Local Government, late on Friday afternoon. It concerns the negotiations on the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS);

"Dear Colleagues
 
We are looking to include a short-term, 'low cost option' in the new LGPS from 2014.  The intention would be to enable non-members to join the LGPS on a 50% contribution and benefits basis as a way of moving towards full membership of the scheme. It would also enable members to reduce contributions for up to three years at times of financial hardship.
 
We have designed this short 'Survey Monkey' survey to seek members' views of this possible option. There is a two-week completion window, with a deadline of 30 March. We would like as many responses as possible so please circulate this email to your colleagues.
 
You can access the survey via the link below.
 
https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LGPSLowCostOption"
 
This "survey" differs from the others I have just mentioned in two important ways. First, it isn't being sent to all members so that, given sufficient turnout, it will provide some indication of the collective opinion of members - it is being cascaded out in a fairly ad hoc way and is likely to be completed by a self-selecting sample. This is a technique intended to provide evidence for a decision already arrived at (rather than "evidence based policy making" this is the approach of "policy based evidence gathering").

Secondly - and even more importantly - no lay body with democratic authority in our Union has authorised this survey, nor the assertion in the accompanying email that "We are looking to include a short-term, 'low cost option' in the new LGPS from 2014." Whoever is included in the first person plural in that sentence it certainly doesn't include any elected body accountable to UNISON members.

Let me be clear. There may (or may not) be sound arguments to permit members of our pension scheme a brief period of reduced contributions for reduced benefits. It may encourage low paid and young workers who are not currently in membership to join the scheme. It may provide an alternative to dropping completely out of the scheme for members who experience short term financial hardship.

Equally however, there are good arguments against a trade union colluding in the emergence of any sort of "two tier" pension scheme, in which those who can afford to pay more get better pensions. If we want to encourage the participation of lower paid members we could vary the differential contribution rates to make the full pension more affordable for those at the lower end of the income distribution (particularly by relating the rate of pension contribution to actual - rather than full time equivalent - earnings).

This alternative approach, of using the tiered contribution rates to promote equity would seem closer to UNISON's values than the offer of short-term cut-price reduced-value pensions to our low paid members, who are overwhelmingly part-time women workers (which appears to something our employers have been aiming for).

The crucial point though, is that the debate about these different approaches should be taking place at our lay Service Group Executives, in our Regions and our Branches - perhaps even at our Conference - before anyone speaking for UNISON can say "We are looking to include a short-term, 'low cost option' in the new LGPS from 2014."

In a lay led trade union this sort of thing would not happen. That it can happen in UNISON shows the atrophy of lay democracy in our organisation.

Since mere trade union members have not been told what has been going on in the LGPS negotiations we cannot know whether this cut-rate option will be part of achieving that part of the second Principle agreed with the Local Government Association that the new LGPS "can include zero increases in employee contributions for all or the vast majority of members provided overall financial constraints are met."

I hope Friday's email will be withdrawn and the "surveymonkey" survey taken down (though until it is you can complete it and comment upon the lack of appropriate lay authority, the laughably unscientific nature of the exercise or indeed anything else you wish to say).

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) will probably be as cynical - and as worried - as I am about what this development tells us about who is calling the shots in the LGPS negotiations.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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